Anand Vivek Taneja’s Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi is an elegant contemplation of the ruins of the fortress built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who ruled Delhi from 1351-88 AD. Its elegance is borne out especially by the author interweaving his own experience of the compound with the voices of those he met in passing and those he came to know over the course of his fieldwork within this space and its environs. Its elegance is evident also in the cinematic references that animate Taneja’s imagination and those of his interlocutors, and the Urdu literary textual tradition readily at hand. Taneja demonstrates a serious commitment to redressing the archival and national amnesia at work in a contemporary India determined to make all things Muslim/Islamic foreign, polluting, and anti-nationalist. Not only does he insist upon the Indic nature of Islam, he claims that Islam is indexed within the lives of non-Muslim Indians through a form of stranger hospitality that is distinctly tied to the culture of Muslim shrines. And in this manner he provides the important reminder that many, besides Muslims, have ongoing relations to such shrines (a point of fact explored in the writings of Sudhir Kakar, Ashish Nandy, Katherine Ewing, Anna Bigelow, Carla Bellamy, and Bhrigupati Singh, to name a few).While I might question the presumption that Islam constitutes a stable and unified object of study, or that it needs saving, whether from nationalist amnesia or from itself (as in Taneja’s insistence that what he witnesses is necessarily progressive, anti-hierarchical, and non-patriarchal), I do not doubt that this book is the labor of much scholarship and love.
I am most especially taken, though, by the book’s elegiac quality. Even while Taneja insists upon the liveliness of the life that has emerged on the neglected grounds of the fortress—stranger sociality, or the celebration of the passing of saints into the embrace of the divine, and the efflorescence of relations with non-humans (most recurrently with snakes and cats)—the tone of the book remains persistently and appropriately mournful. In some ways, the tone remarks upon the bureaucratic forces of destruction, here personified by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which militate against the liveliness of the space by insisting the site is “dead,” code for fallen into disuse and to be preserved as such, as a tourist site to be consumed.
But more than these forces, this mournful tone also indexes a powerful double bind in which the forces of restoration are equally forces of destruction. The Waqf Board or even the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, each of which seeks to make the site fit and functional for its new users, or to preserve it as a place of community, would destroy the very quality of the fortress that makes it alluring for Taneja: it is a ruin and as such, inexorably given to continued ruination. This temporality gives the space its particular urgency and charge to bring forth new potentialities and ethical possibilities in the lives of its users, and in the short period of time it is actually there. While Taneja does not ruminate openly on this facet of time as ruination, it seems nevertheless to undergird the book.
While ruins have provided a provocative figuration of history, memory, and belonging within anthropology, often mediated by Walter Benjamin, Taneja’s opening chapters suggest a dimension of ruins less often brought into focus. Firoz Shah Kotla, the ruins in question, is almost shorn of light, natural or generated, and instead exists in shadows, a dark spot on an urban and ever-growing metropolis that is insistently lit. The heavy darkness that hangs over the physical ruins and the deep shadows that fringe it are nicely conveyed by Taneja as he makes his way through tunnels in the ruins to sites of gathering and worship within its various corners. They recalled for me three important texts on the neglected importance of shadows for an understanding of sensory experience, aesthetics, and divine order.
The first is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Theory of Color,” in which he writes of the color of shadow, conducting small, commonplace experiments of juxtaposing different colors and lights to show that shadows are imbued with color and that color itself has a quality of darkness. When we experience a technicolor scene we are therefore experiencing darkness and shadow. “Being related to darkness, color tends to unite with it to become visible to us in darkness and through darkness whenever given the opportunity.”
Two centuries later, Junichiro Tanizaki would move us beyond the physiological description to an aesthetics of shadow, in which one possible account for the civilizational difference between the East and the West, he argues, lies in the East’s quotidian appreciation and elicitation of shadows: “The ‘mysterious Orient’ of which Westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silences of these dark places. And even we as children would feel an inexpressible chill as we peered into the depths of an alcove to which the sunlight had never penetrated. Where lies the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of its shadows.”
Finally, through her analysis of the muqarnas, a form of ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture sometimes referred to as a “honeycomb” vault, Laura Marks exposits that its anarchic interplay of light and shadow is to help with recollecting that all plenitude and absence relies upon the will of the divine.
To what do my flights of imagination and recollections amount? They speak to an alternative approach to the Islamic tradition besides the trope of light. As anyone familiar with the textual tradition knows, there is an overwhelming emphasis on the movement from darkness to light as a way to pattern the conversion to Islam. For example, the believer is bathed in the light of God. In his essay, “The Shame and the Glory: T. E. Lawrence,” Gilles Deleuze describes the Arabian desert as awash in light: “The desert and its perception, or the perception of the Arabs in the desert, seem to pass through Goethean moments. In the beginning, there is light, but it is not yet perceived. It is instead a pure transparency, invisible, colorless, unformed, untouchable. It is the Idea, the God of the Arabs.” And the twelfth-century Muslim philosopher Suhrawardi is credited with founding the influential school of Illuminationism. But given the importance of shadows for the experience of the quotidian for Goethe and Tanizaki, or of the experience of the transcendental from within the quotidian for Marks, how might shadows help with another way to approach Muslim lives and polities, particularly in the present where Taneja’s book abides?
Jinnealogy provides three important sources for imagining a lived Islam from the perspective of shadows. First, there is the sovereign, Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who built the fortress in medieval Delhi and whose reputed cruelty belies the affection with which his ruins are currently treated and the entreaties made to him in the form of letters thrust into alcoves by visitors seeking his help. While Taneja seems a bit puzzled by the popular focus on the sovereign and the recasting of his figure from a cruel overlord to a just ruler, we have to remember that a sovereign is the shadow of God on Earth. In his Shadow and Sound: The Historical Thought of a Sumatran People, James Siegel recounts the Islamicist Ignaz Goldziher’s explication of the phrase: “as Goldziher explains it, the ‘shadow of God on earth’ is a metaphor for the government as a place of shelter to be compared with the shelter of shade in the desert….”
The second source of shadows is of course the jinns, creatures of smokeless fire who are seen as conduits between this time and that of the sovereign. Jinns are reputed to live in desolate areas, such as these ruins, where clumps of dung and soil serve as their food and the same sites serve as their homes. They domesticate the shadows for those taking shelter in the ruins.
And the third source of shadows is none other than the self of whom Taneja speaks, both relational and individual, but whose selfhood is best expressed for him as one of being acted upon, bearing the press of another. I would go so far as to name this self the unconscious and to say that the ruins draw visitors by making itself the inner rendered as the outer. Thus traversing the ruins is a traversal of one’s inner self, otherwise hidden to oneself.
I do not have space here to explore the ramifications of these three sources of shadows and their overlapping within the ruins. So I will end by saying that I had been puzzled about the claims upon the ecological in the subtitle to the book but this latticework of shadows ultimately provided me with a wonderful image for the Islamic ecological.